Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

White v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

October 16, 2017

WHITE
v.
THE STATE

          NAHMIAS, JUSTICE.

         Appellant Wardell Deloun White entered guilty pleas to felony murder and other crimes in connection with the shooting deaths of Victor Martinez and Mauricio Maldonado, and the trial court entered judgments of conviction and sentence on the guilty pleas that did not merge. During the same term of court, Appellant filed two pro se motions to withdraw guilty pleas. The State moved to dismiss the pro se motions on the ground that Appellant was represented by counsel when he filed them, and the trial court granted the State's motion. Appellant, assisted by counsel, filed a timely notice of appeal. We affirm.

         1. On the night of April 28-29, 2012, Appellant participated in a home invasion in Eastanollee, Georgia, that resulted in the deaths of Martinez and Maldonado. On April 30, Appellant was arrested, and on May 3, attorney Drew W. Powell of the Mountain Judicial Circuit Public Defender's Office filed an entry of appearance in the trial court on Appellant's behalf. On July 17, a Stephens County grand jury indicted Appellant, along with two other defendants, on two counts of malice murder, two counts of felony murder, burglary, attempted armed robbery, two counts of aggravated assault, violation of the street gang act, and three counts of possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. Appellant was also charged with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, two related counts of felony murder, and making a false statement during an official investigation. On October 16, the State filed a notice of intent to seek the death penalty against Appellant.

         On January 16, 2013, attorney Jerilyn Bell of the Office of the Georgia Capital Defender filed an entry of appearance on Appellant's behalf, and on February 15, Emily Gilbert of the same office filed an entry of appearance. On October 15, 2014, Joseph W. Vigneri, another attorney with the Capital Defender's office, filed a notice of substitution for Bell as lead counsel.

         On September 18, 2015, during the July 2015 term of the Stephens County Superior Court, [1] Appellant entered negotiated guilty pleas to one count of felony murder against Martinez, burglary, attempted armed robbery, two counts of aggravated assault, violation of the street gang act, one count of possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, and making a false statement; the other charges were nolle prossed. On the same day, the trial court entered a final judgment noting the charges that were nolle prossed, merging Appellant's guilty plea to burglary into his guilty plea to felony murder predicated on burglary, and sentencing Appellant to serve life in prison with the possibility of parole plus a total of 15 consecutive years.

         The following month, on October 15, 2015, the trial court received a handwritten letter from Appellant in which he requested to withdraw his guilty pleas.[2] The court treated the letter as a pro se motion to withdraw guilty pleas. On October 21, the court served the letter on the District Attorney and defense counsel and issued a rule nisi, copied to the "Georgia Public Defender Standards Council, " setting a hearing on December 1 to consider whether conflict counsel should be appointed for Appellant in light of the allegations in his handwritten letter against his present counsel. On November 5, Appellant, acting pro se, filed a motion to withdraw guilty pleas, claiming that the indictment was void, his pleas were invalid, the trial court erred in accepting the guilty pleas, and he received ineffective assistance of counsel. On November 12, Vigneri and Gilbert filed a motion to withdraw as counsel for Appellant.

         On December 1, 2015, the case appeared on the trial court's 1:30 p.m. hearing calendar, but Appellant was unavailable, so the hearing was continued. At 1:45 p.m., the chief legal officer for the Georgia Public Defender Council ("GPDC") filed an Objection to Jurisdiction and Statement of Interest that objected to the trial court's effort to control who represented Appellant and reported that

the [GPDC] director has appointed Defendant White's case to William A. (Bill) Morrison. The Council has contracted with Mr. Morrison before on capital matters, and Mr. Morrison has had the necessary training to advise Defendant White on his motion to withdraw his guilty plea.

         On December 11, the trial court granted Vigneri and Gilbert's motion to withdraw as counsel for Appellant and entered a separate order rescheduling the December 1 hearing to February 9, 2016, "for the purpose of hearing the merits of [Appellant's] Motion to Withdraw Guilty Plea." The hearing was later continued to February 12, 2016.

         At the outset of the February 12 hearing, the State orally moved to dismiss Appellant's pro se motions to withdraw guilty pleas on the ground that he was represented by counsel when he filed them. Morrison, who appeared as counsel for Appellant at the hearing, complained of the lack of notice that the State was going to move to dismiss. The court gave Morrison 10 days to respond to the State's motion and suspended the hearing for 60 days to allow Morrison time to investigate the medications that Appellant was on and his state of mind when he entered his guilty pleas. On February 23, Morrison filed an amended motion to withdraw guilty pleas, asking that Appellant's letter to the court and pro se motion to withdraw guilty pleas be amended by adding Morrison as Appellant's attorney of record and that the amendments "relate back" to the time of the original filings. On March 7, 2016, the trial court entered an order dismissing Appellant's pro se motions.

         Morrison filed a timely notice of appeal on Appellant's behalf. After the trial court transmitted the record to this Court, the appeal was docketed to the April 2017 term and submitted for decision on the briefs.

         2. Appellant contends that a defendant in a capital case should be "deemed unrepresented" after the entry of sentence. Appellant cites no authority, however, for the novel proposition that a lawyer's representation of a criminal defendant, whether facing the death penalty or otherwise, terminates the moment that a judgment of conviction and sentence is entered. Instead, he plucks a phrase from the last sentence of a Uniform Superior Court Rule on arraignment and argues that it means that a criminal defendant's attorney at arraignment represents the defendant from that point "throughout the trial, " but if the defendant chooses after the trial to file a pro se motion, the defendant is no longer represented by counsel.[3] This far-fetched argument, even if correct, would not apply to Appellant, because here there was no trial; Appellant entered guilty pleas before his trial ever started. Moreover, OCGA § 17-12-12 (d) says: "The Georgia capital defender division or appointed counsel's defense of a defendant in a case in which the death penalty is sought shall include all proceedings in the trial court and any appeals to the Supreme Court of Georgia. . . ." We need not decide how this statute applies to a case like Appellant's in which the death penalty was sought but ultimately not pursued due to guilty pleas, but that statute certainly at least offsets Appellant's rule-based argument.

         More fundamentally, and contrary to Appellant's assertion, a holding that criminal defendants' representation by counsel terminates automatically on the entry of a judgment and sentence - whether following the return of a jury verdict or the entry of a guilty plea - would make little sense. It would deprive defendants of the "guiding hand of counsel, " Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45, 69 (53 S.Ct. 55, 77 LE 158) (1932), at a point in the proceeding when important decisions need to be made and actions potentially taken, often with short deadlines, regarding the filing of a post-trial motion (e.g., a motion for new trial), a post-plea motion (e.g., a motion to withdraw a guilty plea), or a notice of appeal. Such a holding also would contradict this Court's precedents on out-of-time appeals, which recognize that defense counsel's duties towards their clients extend for at least the 30 days after the entry of judgment when a notice of appeal may be filed. See, e.g., Grace v. State, 295 Ga. 657, 658 (763 S.E.2d 461) (2014); Stephens v. State, 291 Ga. 837, 837-838 (733 S.E.2d 266) (2012).

         A trial court in a criminal case has "plenary power over its orders and judgments during the term at which they are entered and may amend, correct, or revoke them, for the purpose of promoting justice, " as long as no notice of appeal has been filed. Hipp v. State, 293 Ga. 415, 416 (746 S.E.2d 95) (2013) (citations and quotation marks omitted). This authority "'extends to all orders and judgments save those which are founded upon verdicts.'" Id. (citation omitted). Thus, we conclude that, at a minimum, legal representation continues - unless interrupted by entry of an order allowing counsel to withdraw or compliance with the requirements for substitution of counsel, see USCR 4.3 (1)-(3) - through the end of the term at which a trial court enters a judgment of conviction and sentence on a guilty plea, during which time the court retains authority to change its prior orders and judgments on motion or sua sponte for the purpose of promoting justice. See Tolbert v. Toole, 296 Ga. 357, 362 (767 S.E.2d 24) (2014) ("A formal withdrawal of counsel ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.